Fiction — From the July 2003 issue

Birthday girl

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She waited on tables as usual that day, her twentieth birthday. She always worked on Fridays, but if things had gone according to plan that particular Friday, she would have had the night off. The other part-time girl had agreed to switch shifts with her as a matter of course: being screamed at by an angry chef while lugging pumpkin gnocchi and seafood fritto to customers’ tables was not a normal way to spend one’s twentieth birthday. But the other girl had aggravated a cold and gone to bed with unstoppable diarrhea and a fever of 104, so she ended up working after all on short notice.

She found herself trying to comfort the sick girl, who had called to apologize. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I wasn’t going to do anything special anyway, even if it is my twentieth birthday.”

And in fact she was not all that disappointed. One reason was the terrible argument she had had a few days earlier with the boyfriend who was supposed to be with her that night. They had been going together since high school, and the argument had started from nothing much. But it had taken an unexpected turn for the worse until it became a long and bitter shouting match—one bad enough, she was pretty sure, to have snapped their long-standing ties once and for all. Something inside her had turned rock-hard and died. He had not called her since the blowup, and she was not about to call him.

Her workplace was one of the better-known Italian restaurants in the tony Roppongi district of Tokyo. It had been in business since the late sixties, and, although its cuisine was hardly leading edge, its high reputation was fully justified. It had many repeat customers, and they were never disappointed. The dining room had a calm, relaxed atmosphere without a hint of pushiness. Rather than a young crowd, the restaurant drew an older clientele that included some famous stage people and writers.

The two full-time waiters worked six days a week. She and the other part-time waitress were students who took turns working three days each. In addition there was one floor manager and, at the register, a skinny middle-aged woman who supposedly had been there since the restaurant opened—literally sitting in the one place, it seemed, like some gloomy old character from Little Dorrit. She had exactly two functions: to accept payment from the guests and to answer the phone. She spoke only when necessary and always wore the same black dress. There was something cold and hard about her: if you set her afloat on the nighttime sea, she could probably sink any boat that happened to ram her.

The floor manager was perhaps in his late forties. Tall and broad-shouldered, his build suggested that he had been a sportsman in his youth, but excess flesh was now beginning to accumulate on his belly and chin. His short, stiff hair was thinning at the crown, and a special aging-bachelor smell clung to him—like newsprint that had been stored for a while in a drawer with cough drops. She had a bachelor uncle who smelled like that.

The manager always wore a black suit, white shirt, and bow tie—not a snap-on bow tie but the real thing, tied by hand. It was a point of pride for him that he could tie it perfectly without looking in the mirror. His job consisted in checking the arrival and departure of guests, keeping the reservation situation in mind, knowing the names of regular customers, greeting them with a smile, lending a respectful ear to any customers’ complaints, giving expert advice on wines, and overseeing the work of the waiters and waitresses. He performed his duties adroitly day after day. It was also his special task to deliver dinner to the room of the restaurant’s owner.

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